Quick Review: SUPERMAN UNCHAINED Deluxe Edition (DC Comics)

SupermanUnchained-DeluxeWriter: Scott Snyder | Artist: Jim Lee, Dustin Nguyen, Scott Williams

From the skies above Metropolis to the four corners of the globe to the star-streaked spaceways beyond, one man is synonymous with the word “hero.” Since his arrival marked the dawn of the superhero age, Superman has waged a never-ending battle for truth and justice, no matter when or where.

But before the dawn came the darkness. When another with incredible power, far more than that of mortal man, fell to the Earth. One who could spell the end for the Man of Steel.

Collects: Superman Unchained #1-9

This is a pretty good Superman story. As the name suggests, it’s off-the-hook, action-packed and large-scale. The stakes are high (global peril!), the action is huge, and the story stretches back to the 1940s. Superman is up against a group of techno-terrorists and a mysterious US military department that appears to have been manipulating events behind-the-scenes for years. Teaming up with a surprise ally, Superman must get to the bottom of the terrorists’ schemes, and negotiate a peace with the US military. Meanwhile, his friends and allies step up to help out as and when they can.

The writing is very good, the artwork is stunning, and the action comes fast and often. By offering no pretense as to what this story is meant to be, Scott et al can really go all out. There’s a lot of over-the-top action, presented in eye-catching, stunning artwork. It still manages to be less over-the-top than the Man of Steel movie, mind… If you have any interest in the character, then Superman Unchained should entertain.

Superman Unchained Deluxe Edition is published next week.

Yet Another Fantastic CONSTANTINE Cover (DC Comics)

Constantine-20-Art

It’s a series I’ve barely read, but damn does it get some great covers… The image above, by Juan Ferreyra, will be the cover for Constantine #20. The issue, due out on December 10th, is written by Ray Fawkes and art by Jeremy Haun. Here’s the mini-synopsis:

It’s hate at first sight when John Constantine meets his Earth 2 counterpart!

(Got to love a to-the-point synopsis…)

Batman, Vols. 4-5: Zero Year “Secret City” & “Dark City” (DC Comics)

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Writer: Scott Snyder | Art: Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, FCO Pascencia, Rafael Albuquerque

The New 52 origin of The Dark Knight delves into Bruce Wayne’s past with the Red Hood Gang and his run-ins with aspiring District Attorney Harvey Dent!

Before the Batcave and Robin, The Joker and the Batmobile, there was ZERO YEAR. The Riddler has plunged Gotham City into darkness. How will a young Dark Knight bring his beloved hometown from the brink of chaos and madness and back into the light?

Collects: Batman #21-24 (Vol.4); #25-27, 29-33 (Vol.5)

I’ve always had a soft-spot for origin stories, as I’m sure many fans do. In Zero Year, Snyder et al, have created a very good, more extensive and explanatory take on the origins of Gotham’s Dark Knight. Other stories and collections have touched up this period of Bruce’s development from spoiled rich kid to crime-fighting genius, but none have done it this well. If you haven’t been reading the New 52 Batman, then I’d strongly recommend you start – either here or at the beginning of Snyder’s run. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Volume 4 pretty much re-creates the background portion of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, but from Batman’s perspective, and with a little more focus on the wider actions of the Red Hood gang. Their fight against the new vigilante are relentless and bloody (Bruce is really put through the ringer, here). The story is very well-told, too. There are echoes with Nolan’s Dark Knight movie trilogy, but with shades of Fight Club and Gone in Sixty Seconds added in the back-up stories focused on Bruce’s overseas training stops.

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In Volume 5, things really get tricky for Batman and his new allies: the Riddler takes over the city (there is a strange leap forward in time, which wasn’t handled quite as smoothly or neatly as it could have been), and it is up to them to wrest control of the power grid and save the lives of their fellow Gothamites from the Riddler’s games. The story has an excellent flow to it, and there’s a nice, circular element to the narrative that takes us back to certain events in Volume 4. Snyder et al show us perhaps the most detailed account of the days leading up to the death of Bruce’s parents that I’ve ever seen. (Anyone know if it’s presented in greater detail anywhere else?) I really enjoyed this volume, made even better by the fact that it’s a pretty long book – not once did it feel like the story was dragging, and the creative team have done a wonderful job of making it visually and narratively engaging and attention-grabbing.

Across both books, and their back-ups, the artwork is fantastic – Capullo’s art is consistently brilliant, and the back-up artists (including Rafael Albuquerque, who has worked with Snyder on multiple other projects) offer welcome and refreshing alternatives. There really is nothing bad I can think of saying about the two books’ visuals – it’s all excellent. There were a couple of moments that were clearly meant to be homages to Frank Miller’s Batman work. First, there was this moment (thanks so the Mary Sue for putting together the image – I was reading the digital ARC, which has degraded artwork to prevent sharing, etc.)*:

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Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (left) and the new image

And also this moment, which is another homage to a Dark Knight Returns cover (I put this one together):

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Snyder’s work on the Batman series continues to impress and entertain, and also expand the Batman mythology brilliantly. I’m concerned about the growing number of Batman titles, though, because I don’t want the story from each to become so cross-pollinated that you can’t properly follow any of them without reading all of them. So, please, just don’t go the way of Marvel?

In all? Batman continues to be very highly recommended. If you’re a fan of the character, you need to be reading Snyder et al’s series.

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Batman, Vol.4 – “Secret City” Contents

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Batman, Vol.5 – “Dark City” Contents

* That Mary Sure piece also has one other homage example, this time to the first appearance of Batman – also something I spotted, but I thought the Miller homages were far more striking, so decided to share them.

Another Cool CONSTANTINE Cover (DC New 52)

The New 52 Constantine series has been getting some really cool cover, lately. The piece that will grace the 17th issue – by Juan Ferreyra – is particularly cool, too, because it ties in with the centennial commemoration of World War I…

Constantine-17

The issue – published on this week – is written by Ray Fawkes, with art by Edgar Salazar and Jay Leisten, and colours by Richard and Tanya Horie. Here’s the synopsis:

John Constantine is no stranger to death, but he’s never seen it on this scale – a spell gone terribly wrong has sent him back through time to World War I! Unfortunately, he’s not the only mage in the trenches… and where death has this much power, black magic couldn’t be more dangerous!

You can check out a preview of the issue here.

Cover Art: Constantine #15 (DC New 52)

I haven’t been keeping up-to-date on single issues from any of DC Comics’ New 52 series for quite some time. I did, therefore, only just spot this piece, which graces the cover of Constantine #15. The artist is Juan E. Ferrevra. I particularly liked the silhouette effect.

Constantine-15-Art

The issue is written by Ray Fawkes, and internal artwork is by ACO, Richard and Tanya Horie.

Here’s the synopsis:

John Constantine witnesses the horrifying reach of magic when he meets the world’s wealthiest mage – a woman who’s been draining all the good luck out of her home city of Hong Kong and benefiting from the suffering of millions.

Quick Review: Batgirl, Vol.4 – “Wanted” (DC Comics)

Batgirl-Vol.4Series continues strongly into its fourth collection

Writer: Gail Simone, Marguerite Bennett (#25) | Artist: Fernando Pararin, Jonathan Glapion, Daniel Sampere (#20), Carlos Rodriguez (#20), Vicente Cifuentes (#20)

Batgirl struggles to continue fighting crime after being emotionally drained by the death of her brother, James, Jr. With her relationships with Batman and her father strained, Batgirl face one of Batman’s most ruthless villains, The Ventriloquist, alone.

Collects: Batgirl #19-26, Ventriliquist #1

Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl has been critically acclaimed from seemingly all quarters. As, actually, has most of her work. This was the first series written by her that I’ve tried, and it has been a favourite of the New 52 titles ever since. That being said, though, I’m not really sure how to write about it. So, I’ll keep this brief and to the point… It’s really good. Ok, that was a bit too brief…

Simone’s writing is excellent throughout. Not only has she crafted an engaging, unrushed overall narrative, but she’s also done a brilliant job of digging deep into what Barbara/Batgirl is going through. And, indeed, Simone really puts our heroine through a beating, physical and emotional. For example, there is the fallout (psychological and otherwise) resulting from the death of her brother; the tension between her and her father; the death of someone else close. And, of course, the baddies: in this book, the Ventriloquist is at the centre of Batgirl’s world, and she is damned creepy. Her origin story backs it up, too. Possibly one of the creepiest, non-cartoony DC villains I’ve read in a while. And a previous group of villains resurfaces, bringing with them an interesting example of franchising or outsourcing crime. I know that’s all a little bit vague, but Batgirl is subjected to a lot of trauma in this collection, and all of it is pretty momentous. It’ll be really interesting to see how Barbara’s story continues.

As for the artwork? It’s brilliant. Pasarin and Glapion do a wonderful job of realising Simone’s story, and also Bennett’s in the Gothtopia issue. The panels, full-pages are all clear, vibrantly coloured and yet still appropriately moody and atmospheric.

If you haven’t read this series, yet, I would strongly recommend it. Personally, I think it’s much better than Simone’s work on Red Sonja (but that may be a result of my general disappointment with that series as a whole).

Batgirl-Vol.4-Content

Fantastic Page from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #2 (DC)

I just caught this over on iFanboy’s “Best of the Week in Panels… 03/20”, and it made me laugh. So, naturally, I’m sharing it here:

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The story is written by the great Geoff Johns, with artwork by David Finch, Sonia Oback, and Rob Leigh. It’s always nice to see that some writers haven’t lost their sense of fun. Justice League of America #2 is out now.

Batman: Dark Knight, Vol.2 – “Cycle of Violence” (DC)

BatmanDarkKnight-Vol.02Writer: Gregg Hurwitz | Artist: David Finch | Inks: Richard Friend (#10) | Colors: Sonia Oback

The Scarecrow has returned to Gotham City, but he’s no longer the meek punching bag Batman is used to. The villainous genius has always preyed on the worst fears of his victims, but has refined his legendary fear toxin to even greater effectiveness and deadlier consequences. As the Scarecrow’s origin is unfurled, Batman must find out not only how to conquer this dangerous psychopath, but how to beat his own worst fear.

Collects: Batman: Dark Knight #10-15

This story arc, the first from New York Times bestselling thriller author Gregg Hurwitz, is simply brilliant. It covers some familiar Batman-Scarecrow ground (and also back story), but with a more contemporary, sinister edge. Hurwitz has taken a very psychological approach to the story (there’s not as much action as many comic authors inject into Dark Knight tales), and he really pulls it off, delving into the mind and past of both the Scarecrow and Batman. I was hooked from the first page, and blitzed through this in one quick, satisfying sitting.

BatmanDarkKnight-12-Internal4

Finch’s artwork, Oback’s colors and Friend’s inks are absolutely superb. Everything works together to enhance the story in every way: from the wonderful, clever use of shadows, shading and especially the facial expressions, to the effectively silent pages. For example, these two, from the first chapter, which were particularly powerful and moving:

BatmanDarkKnight-10-Internal7

Overall, then (and excuse the short review – I don’t want to spoil the story), this is very, very good indeed. Hurwitz’s story is just all-round, dark brilliance: the writing, artwork, everything comes together perfectly. This is, without doubt, one of the best Batman stories I’ve read. The series is a keeper once again.

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Original Series Covers

For the review, I read the digital editions of the single issues, bought from ComiXology.

Wonder Woman, Vol.2 – “Guts” (DC)

WonderWoman-Vol-02Writer: Brian Azzarello | Artist: Cliff Chiang (#7-8, 11), Tony Atkins (#9-10), Kano (#10) | Inks: Dan Green (#9-) | Colors: Matthew Wilson

Wonder Woman goes to hell! After playing Poseidon, Hades, and Hera against each other, Hades strikes back by kidnapping Zola and trapping her in the Underworld. It’s up to Wonder Woman — with a little help from the God of Love and the God of Smiths — to break Zola out. But what is Hades’ real game, and once you get into the land of the dead, how exactly do you get out?

Collects: Wonder Woman #7-12

I rather enjoyed the first collection of Azzarello’s run on Wonder Woman. Chiang’s artwork is great, and Azzarello’s story has some surprises and is a pretty interesting interpretation of Greek Mythology. Where the first collection, “Blood” was strong, “Guts” didn’t live up to my expectations as much as I had hoped – mainly because there’s a bit of a weak middle-section. Otherwise, though, this is still pretty interesting and it does end on a strong note.

One of the first things that jumped out at me in this book is the sinister, predatory, almost evil character Azzarello imbues the Amazons with (it involves the methods they employ to reproduce…). Wonder Woman and her allies have travelled to Mt. Aetna, seeking the help from Hephaestus (the gods’ weapon-maker). Over the course of the first chapter of “Guts”, we learn of the fate of male offspring of the Amazons, which shocks Diana’s impression of the Amazons’ culture to the core.

While in the company of Hephaestus, we also get the Wonder Woman-equivalent of the “Guns, lots of guns” scene in The Matrix. Only, they don’t just pick up guns (Wonder Woman has, initially, a more conventional, traditional approach to weaponry).

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Issue #9 onwards dropped a little in quality, I must say. The story becomes a little more odd, and gets just a tad silly. I still really enjoy the depiction of Greek mythology and so forth, but the story just didn’t feel as strong as past issues. The ending to issue #10 was… A bit meh, too. I’m not sure if it was meant to be a morality tale, or a clunky attempt at a future-redemption tale. Or if it was just a long lead up so they could have that final page, when Wonder Woman employs Eros’s guns in a particular way. I’m just not sure what to make of it. I didn’t hate it by any means, but it was an oddly-written issue.

Ultimately, Wonder Woman has become a tale of squabbling families, deals and bloody betrayals. Which is rather appropriate, I think, given the Greek Mythology that infuses Azzarello’s version of the Wonder Woman story (I have no experience reading any previous Wonder Woman series or storylines, so I can’t comment beyond this). The final chapter ends with a nice twist, before offering quite the tease for the next story arc.

I really love Cliff Chiang’s artwork. Atkins & Kano’s issues/chapters do a very good job of matching Chiang’s style, but we start to see some odd touches coming through (for example, exaggerated facial expressions – particularly Strife’s). Thankfully, Chiang returns for issues #11 and #12. The depiction of Hell is pretty interesting, too.

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Although, I’m not sure why a Greek god would re-create a hellish version of London… (Despite some earlier issues taking part there, Diana and everyone else in this series is either a Greek God/myth or American, so London is an odd choice, no?)

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To be honest, I didn’t like this collection as much as Volume 1. Despite the very strong artwork and aesthetic, Azzarello’s story (particularly the botched wedding/romance with Hel in the middle) just failed to grab my attention. Nevertheless, apart from that mid-point wobble, it is still not a bad read – I just think there have been better issues in the series, and Azzarello has definitely produced some better comics. If you’re a fan of more “modern” approaches to classic comic heroes, then I think you’ll find something in here to enjoy and meet your needs.

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Original Issue Cover Art

***

Further Reading: The Atlantic ran a story on their website about Azzarello’s Wonder Woman, “Wonder Woman’s Violent, Man-Pandering Second Act” by Noah Berlatsky (who also runs Hooded Utilitarian), which I thought others might find interesting. I also had more to say about the article than I did about the book, so if you’ll indulge me…

WonderWoman-MarstonArticleImageBerlantsky believes Azzarello has betrayed the original intent of Wonder Woman’s creator. William Marston, who seems to have been quite the polymath in his day, created the character of Wonder Woman sometime in the mid-1940s, in reaction to the comics available at the time. Me being me, I tracked down the original article, and it’s pretty interesting, so I’ve included a couple of quotations from it, below.

In The American Scholar, Marston wrote that, “from a psychological angle” the comics of that era’s “worst offense was their blood-curdling masculinity.” (In “Why 100,000,000 Americans Read Comics”, Winter 1943/4 issue, pp.35-44, in case you’re interested in tracking it down). Berlantsky offers a nostalgic run-down of the classic ideals Marston brought to his series (space kangaroos!), and then moves on to how Azzarello has broken with it. I should mention from the outset that all I’ve read of the character has been the first two volumes of the New 52 series, and a few Justice League-related books (including Geoff Johns’ New 52 iteration of that series as well).

I won’t deal with everything from The Atlantic article, but there is one thing I’d like to pick up on. Specifically, the guns.

He takes particular objection to Chiang’s cover pieces that depict Wonder Woman wielding Eros’s guns:

“Chiang’s interior cover for issue #8 shows Wonder Woman leaping from the side, shooting two golden pistols while discarded golden shell cases rain down around her — the insufficiently swaggering golden lasso nowhere in sight. Elsewhere in the series, we get to see Wonder Woman shot in the chest; a woman displaying her gashed open and bleeding arms, a giant devouring monster zombie creature, and another interior cover showing Wonder Woman with a death’s head toting those cool golden guns again.”

Berlantsky has a point, in some respects. But, given the ending of issue #10 (which I mentioned above), there is a little bit more to it than the chance to just give Diana big, gold-plated (shiny!) guns. I do agree with him that the ending is “banal”, but perhaps I wouldn’t have used quite as strong a word. When maybe I should have. He goes on:

“The fact that the guns belong to the god Eros, and shoot bullets of violent infatuation just emphasizes that, for Azzarello, even love is a blood-curdling business best expressed through phallic firepower.”

Also possible, but part of me thinks Azzarello’s use of pistols may be more of a nod to Baz Lurman’s Romeo & Juliet (“Take up your .45-Magnum-semi-automatic swords!”) and the inspiration for updating classical weaponry for more modern firepower. I have absolutely no proof of this, though, so it’s entirely possible I’m wrong. It’s just an optional theory.

I think Berlantsky’s right, though, about Azzarello & Co.’s “eagerness to demonstrate the adultness of the adult content” of the New 52 series. But, I think he sadly does not appreciate Azzarello’s take on Greek Mythology:

“each [god/character] is rolled out to demonstrate their cool-as-shit, bad-ass powers and complicated dynastic motivations. Everybody – Hades, Wonder Woman, everyone – bargains and schemes and betrays and manipulates everyone else. It’s a god-eat-god world out there – and one built, in every way, on blood”

This is, actually, a pretty faithful interpretation of Greek mythology. In some ways, then, despite the obvious added masculinity, Azzarello has returned Diana’s story and that of her supporting cast to a point closer to the source material? True, this defeats the intended “purpose” (for want of a better word) of the original series, but it is nevertheless an interesting story. Comics writers are frequently criticized for trying new things with characters (often, it is met with Screaming Denunciation from long-time-fans, and bemused incredulity from newer readers).

Berlantsky’s article has an interesting omission, though, which I think supports his point even better than Diana taking up twinned fire-arms. One could argue that there is even more “blood-curdling masculinity” in the way Azzarello changes Diana’s classic weapon. Berlantsky says the guns are more attractive to the “(much smaller) audience of (mostly) men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s” than Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. (I always thought it was a whip, but that could just say something about me…) In this book, Hephaestus gives Diana a different whip (definitely a whip this time), which can cause some pretty nasty, fiery damage/pain/destruction. Surely it is the bastardisation of her traditional weapon (“tool”? “Accessory”?), the one that set her apart as the hero who settles conflict non-violently, that is more indicative of the shift Berlantsky wants to highlight?

Ultimately, the article finishes on a note I agree with: the justification of (using Berlantsky’s terminology) “blood-curdling masculinity” as a short-hand for “maturity and realism”. Or, in fantasy community terminology, short-hand for “grimdark”!

“But making Wonder Woman more violent doesn’t make her more mature or more real. It just makes her more conventional.”

Not mentioned in Berlatsky’s article is a Marston quotation, also from The American Scholar, his reaction after an attempt to submit Wonder Woman to a comics publisher:

“A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life. Suppose your child’s ideal becomes a superman who uses his extraordinary power to help the weak. The most important ingredient in the human happiness recipe still is missing – love. It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous. But it’s sissified, according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring.”

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A lot of the article is rather dated, but there’s something nice about reading an article by a writer back in the 1940s who was so clearly irritated by male-domination of comic literature. I also rather liked this passage from Marston’s article, with regards to why people read comics:

“Nine humans out of ten react first with their feelings rather than with their minds; the more primitive the emotion stimulated, the stronger the reaction. Comics play a trite but lusty tune on the C natural keys of human nature. They rouse the most primitive, but also the most powerful, reverberations in the noisy cranial sound-box of consciousness, drowning out more subtle symphonies. Comics scorn finesse, thereby incurring the wrath of linguistic adepts. They defy the limits of accepted fact and convention, thus amortizing to apoplexy the ossified arteries of routine thought. But by these very tokens the picture-story fantasy cuts loose the hampering debris of art and artifice and touches the tender spots of universal human desires and aspirations, hidden customarily beneath long accumulated protective coverings of indirection and disguise. Comics speak, without qualm or sophistication, to the innermost ears of the wishful self. The response is like that of a thirsty traveler who suddenly finds water in the desert – he drinks to satiation.”